It’s a buzz phrase that’s been tossed around regarding mapping people’s contacts with each other using smartphones in order to be aware of those infected with COVID-19 and those with whom they have been in contact.
But, like much of what has been happening since pandemic restrictions were introduced worldwide, contact tracing comes with some privacy concerns.
While he didn’t address the concept of technological tracing May 6, Premier John Horgan did discuss contact tracing.
And, said B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy, the issue has been under discussion with the Ministry of Health and provincial chief health officer Bonnie Henry.
“I think there may be a place for contact tracing as the province takes the next steps in addressing COVID-19,” McEvoy told Glacier Media.
“Any information would be voluntarily collected,” McEvoy said. “It would only be used for one purpose and that’s for fighting COVID-19.”
But, McEvoy said, if such technology is to be used, the province needs the trust of British Columbians that their information will be used responsibly.
“It’s not a magic bullet,” McEvoy stressed. “It’s just one more tool public health could use to assist in their efforts if it’s done properly.”
McEvoy and his federal, territorial and provincial counterparts issued a statement to Canadians on the issue May 7, saying some apps “do not provide an effective level of protection suited to the digital environment.”
The use of contact tracing is not unknown in recent disease history, having been used in the early days of HIV/AIDS.
It did lead, though, to the purported identification of a Vancouver man, Gaëtan Dugas, who became known but misdescribed as Patient Zero (more from a misread of the letter ‘O’ than anything). He was later found to be one of many people infected in the 1970s.
That, however, was the early 1980s and involved a lot of research and detective work.
In contrast, technological tools can now make light work of such a task. Indeed, contact tracing using mobile phones is being touted as a quick way to alert people about possible contact.
The UK, South Korea, Australia and Singapore already employ apps.
Indeed, McEvoy said he has been in contact with his Singapore counterpart and learned the participation rate is only about 20%. McEvoy said his research indicates a need for 50-70% of the population participating for effective traction. Further, he said, as not all people use smartphones, that number may be 60-80%.
Federal Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam has said contact tracing is an "absolutely critical" public health measure as Canada moves forward in confronting COVID-19. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has touted it as a tool while noting privacy issues must be addressed.
However, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) in an April 20 letter fired a shot across Trudeau’s bows.
While saying technology can support public health efforts, the CCLA told Trudeau, “Involuntary collection of information by governments remains unwarranted today and any requests for voluntary participation should be considered carefully. Nor should existing privacy laws be suspended for proposed public surveillance.”
The CCLA said before such tools are used, certain factors must be engaged:
• the jurisdiction’s privacy commissioner must be engaged prior to and during implementation of any public health surveillance measures;
• data collection must be grounded in evidence of public health necessity, pursuant to a chief medical officer data ‘warrant;
• there must be a compelling objective for the data surveillance;
• an impact detriment analysis for the vulnerable must accompany any executive order, but particularly one involving surveillance, with input from human rights commissions;
• a firewall must protect public health data for public health purposes from police and public order officials and data must be destroyed at the end of an emergency;
• there must be a time limit on data collection;
• chief public health officers and chief legal officers must appear before a legislative committee (online or otherwise) as witnesses for questioning by legislative members prior to the implementation of surveillance measures; and
• Independent oversight of the process and its implementation must exist to oversee the process, receive public complaints, provide recourse for rights infringement and regularly report to the public as to their observations and the nature and number of complaints received.
McEvoy said there are several models of tools available. Singapore’s, he said, is similar to those used in Alberta and Australia. Phone apps collect data from close contacts. If you test positive, a public health officer then uses the app to trace your contacts to alert them to be tested.
China, McEvoy said, does location tracking with its technology.
“That’s obviously a place nobody would want to go,” he said.
Another model is the Google-Apple approach where users testing positive “press a button” on their phone and it messages contacts to get tested. There, the government doesn’t get the information, McEvoy said.
Alberta using app
Alberta recently released the ABTraceTogether app, which the provincial government says “uses a secure, community-driven approach where mobile devices exchange Bluetooth-enabled secure encrypted tokens when another device with the app installed is detected nearby. No other information is shared.”
If a person tests positive, they would be asked who they had been in contact with in the past 21 days. If the person has the app, they would be asked to voluntarily upload the encrypted data from the app to Alberta Health Services (AHS).”
“Once AHS receives the encrypted data, AHS contact tracers will be able to use that information to reach the other app users who have had close contact with the infected person,” a government website said.
The only personal data AHS collects in set-up is a user’s mobile number to allow fast contact in case of close proximity to a COVID-19 case, the website said. Geolocation data is not stored and Bluetooth log data is secure until shared. If the app is deleted, all data remains for 21 days.
Public Health Ontario has also been working on such a tool.
Early on in the pandemic, civil liberties and privacy groups issued a statement cautioning about invasive app use.
“People in Canada are concerned about the possibility of invasive emergency measures and for their potential to continue undermining our rights after the current crisis is over,” the statement said. “Even in times of crisis, mass digital surveillance tools pose a unique and insidious threat to our fundamental values.
“There is also a real risk that they undermine public health measures by providing a false sense of security, or undermine trust in and disclosure to public institutions. It is therefore crucial that all discussions about enhanced surveillance take place transparently and openly, before any new measures are put in place.”
Among those groups was B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA). Executive director Jason Woywada said FIPA is pleased B.C. has not rushed into a contact tracing app.
“We have seen the implications of 'surveillance-as-solution' thinking elsewhere and previously in our own history,” Woywada said. “We think it is important to highlight that these apps be approached cautiously. They require a great deal of public oversight and consideration before implementation to ensure they are protecting people's privacy and are not inappropriately collecting, using, disclosing or retaining information.
“There remains a great deal of debate on whether these surveillance apps lead to improved outcomes in comparison to more general public health awareness of relevant practises like hand washing and physical distancing.”
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association was also a signatory.
Policy director Aisha Weaver said the association is pleased with what the commissioners have produced. She said if governments allow private actors to collect data then oversight mechanisms are vital.
But, she said, the technology has its limitations given Bluetooth linkages might not properly reflect locations if people are on a street near a closed car, on differing sides of walls or in enclosed spaces.
She noted there have been calls for de-identification or anonymizing of such data, something she said adds a further complication to the equation.
Calgary lawyer privacy and technology Kristal Allen said such tracing is an alternative to resource-intensive manual tracing.
But, she said, “The concept of having one’s interactions with others and movements within society traced understandably gives rise to a variety of privacy and security concerns, and fears regarding intrusive surveillance. When this tracing and its component personal information collection occurs via a mobile app, privacy concerns are often heightened due to the possibility of that tracing being more extensive and closely logged or monitored.”
She said such systems must involve meaningful consent, minimal data usage and encryption.